Abandon All But Hope Ye Who Enter

Dread.  It’s the emotion that Alfred Hitchcock built a career upon, and a thousand lesser directors tried to recapture.  Stephen King can channel it with ease.  But it’s not just reserved for thrillers and horror; realist directors and authors also call upon it, some better than others.  One of the most tension-filled movies I ever saw was Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know, because throughout the entire film, I was certain that something terrible was going to happen to one of the film’s oh-so-vulnerable characters.  July used that sense of dread masterfully, and I was riveted for two hours.

Peter Rock knows that dread can make for a compelling narrative, especially when combined with uncertainty.  In My Abandonment, he introduces characters that we know very little about except that they’re living in very vulnerable circumstances.  Caroline and Father (we never learn his name) are living in the forest park on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon and have become masters of not being seen.  Therein lies the first level of dread that Rock introduces: will they be found?

Why do they live in the woods, in a shelter designed so that even someone looking for it might not see it?  They are different, Father says, with their own ways. Caroline, just thirteen years old, has learned her lessons about surviving in the wilderness from Father, a Vietnam War veteran.  An imposing, powerful man, Father is strict, but affectionate.  Caroline’s mother, also named Caroline, has died, and her sister is living with foster parents, although Father promises that when she’s ready, he will bring her to join them.  Father doesn’t trust outsiders, which includes everyone except Caroline. The story is told through Caroline’s journal, and it is her descriptions of her situation, and her father, that we read.  Their relationship, close but unusual, worried me almost from the first page.  That kind of power imbalance and distrust of others raises alarm bells.  What is the true nature of their relationship?

“Sometimes you’re walking through the woods when a stick leaps into the air and strikes you across the back and shoulders several times, then flies away lost in the underbrush.”  This is the opening sentence of the book and immediately raises the question of whether or not something supernatural is happening in Caroline’s life. Other passages subtly reiterate the idea that Caroline sees things that others don’t, which led me to wonder whether Caroline, as narrator, was reliable.  Uncertainty reigns in this novel.  What is she writing in her journal?  What is she leaving out?  Can her observations be trusted?

Even when questions begin to be answered, new questions arise.  When Caroline and Father are found quite unexpectedly by a jogger in the woods, and the police and child services arrive to remove them from their sanctuary, the waiting game begins as to how long it will take for them to attempt an escape.  Will they leave together or be separated?  The very title of the novel, My Abandonment, kept me guessing and speculating: who is abandoned, Caroline or Father?  The word abandonment, and whether it’s transitive or intransitive, is perfect for the sense of uncertainty that Rock cultivates.

Rock’s skill in creating Caroline, a character so compelling and likeable, contributed to my feeling of dread while reading his novel: I didn’t want anything bad to happen to someone I liked so much.  But I couldn’t help thinking that something terrible was going to happen with the turn of the next page; her life was just too unusual, too vulnerable, too out of her control.  What I failed to fully take into account was Caroline’s intelligence and capability.  And so while I was worried about her, and feared for her safety, what I failed to notice was her amazing strength, a strength I wouldn’t have in her place.  If I had recognized it, I would have never been so full of dread.

The 2010 Griffin Poetry Prize

Please join us tomorrow night at Koerner Hall for readings of the shortlisted titles for this years Griffin Poetry Prize.

This year the prize money has been doubled from $100,000 to $200,000!

$10,000 is to be awarded to each of the seven shortlisted poets  for their participation in the shortlist readings. The winners, announced at the Griffin Poetry Prize Awards evening on Thursday, June 3, 2010, will be awarded $65,000 each, for a total of $75,000 including the $10,000 awarded at the Readings the previous evening.

This year the Canadian shortlist is:

The Certainty Dream by Kate Hall

Coal and Roses by P.K. Page

Pigeon by Karen Solie

The International shortlist is:

Grain by John Glenday

A Village Life by Louise Gluck

The Sun-fish by Eilean Ni Chuilleanain

Cold Spring in Winter by Susan Wicks, translated from the French written by Valerie Rouzeau

“Each year, the Griffin Poetry Prize publishes an anthology, a selection of poems from the shortlisted books, published by House of Anansi Press. Royalties from The Griffin Poetry Prize Anthology are donated to UNESCO’s World Poetry Day.”